by Lori de Mori & Laura Jackson from Towpath: Recipes & Stories (Chelsea Green Publishing)
Photography: Scott MacSween & Joe Woodhouse
This dish is a crowd pleaser. The combination of tomato sauce, lots of melted mozzarella and parmesan with fried aubergines is the universal definition of comfort food. Something that will instantly warm you up physically and mentally, giving you that big hug you need as the days become shorter and the darkness descends. But people love it so much that I can put it on the menu any time of year. Occasionally when the weather changes for the worse I can be left with a substantial amount of aubergines and mozzarella. This is where the parmigiana comes in. Even if it’s warm out. it never fails to please.
This is a great dish to prepare in advance if you have people coming round as it actually benefits from being cooked in advance. I always make the parmigiana the day before and leave overnight in the fridge to set. I then cook it and let it cool down completely, otherwise it can be a bit of a nightmare to cut into neat slices. I then warm it again when ready to serve. It is also equally delicious served room temperature.
If you really hate the smell of frying, like my mum, then you can always bake the aubergine slices. Rub the slices with oil. Season & place on baking trays, well-spaced out, in a hot oven – 200°C fan/425°F/gas mark 7. Roast until the aubergines have browned & are soft in the middle – about 30 mins.
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 red onions, peeled, halved and finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch basil, leaves picked, stalks saved
2 x 400g/14oz tinned whole plum tomatoes, blitzed or mashed
sunflower or vegetable oil for frying
1.5kg/3lb 5oz aubergines, sliced lengthways into 0.5 cm/ in slices
2 x 250g/9oz balls of buffalo mozzarella, torn into pieces
200g/7oz parmesan, finely grated
salt and pepper
Start by making the tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. When warm, add the red onions, garlic, basil stalks and season. Cook until soft and sweet – about 15 minutes.
Add the tinned tomatoes, making sure you rinse the tin with water and add all that goodness in too. Stir well and bring to the boil, turn down to a gentle boil and cook for 1 hour. Season again and remove the basil stalks. You want the sauce to thicken, reduce and sweeten.
While the tomato sauce is cooking, fry the aubergines. At Towpath I fry the aubergines in the deep fryer, but to fry the aubergines in a pan, put in a hot frying pan with generous amounts of oil (so it coats the bottom of the pan) and cook until brown. Once brown, turn over and brown the other side. You may need to do this in batches, as you don’t want to overcrowd the pan. Once cooked, put the slices on kitchen paper to drain off all of the excess oil.
Preheat the oven to 210°C fan/450°F/gas mark 8.
To assemble, take a 20 x 28 x 6cm/8 x 11 x 2 in rectangular gratin dish.
Start with a layer of aubergine, slightly overlapping them so they are tightly packed in. Season. Spread over a very thin layer of tomato sauce (this is important – the dish should be dense not saucy!) and season again. Dot the mozzarella over, sprinkle parmesan and scatter some basil leaves.
Repeat until you have four layers, finishing with the mozzarella and parmesan on top. Add double the amount of parmesan on the top, but do not scatter the basil leaves on this time as they will go brown and soggy.
Do not worry if you have sauce left over, but everything else should have been used up.
Place in the oven with a tray underneath, if the dish is very full. Cook for 20 minutes until brown and crispy.
Turn the oven down to 160°C fan/350°F/gas mark 4 and cook for another 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 10 mins.
Serve with salad, or if you want to be really indulgent, with crispy potatoes.